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An Interview with Neil Peart
Interview conducted by Jim Ladd
With thanks to Eric Hansen for the transcription
Tonight we bring you a band, to say the least, that has never been the darlings of the Rock 'n' Roll press. But despite the lack of critical acclaim, they have been building a loyal and sizeable audience for a number of years. They're a three piece power trio from Canada, whose members are guitarist Alex Lifeson, bass player Geddy Lee and our guest tonight, drummer and songwriter Neil Peart.
...I guess in the superficial sense whereas most of the impressions we get of people as thinking that we're very dry and very serious and disciplined. It's strange I guess, depending on knowledge it's true if you have a very superficial knowledge, then you think "three piece band playing hard rock music, they got to be wild, crazy Rock 'n' Roll maniacs".
People that we know a little bit deeper than that, but not too deep, that know the fact we deal with serious things and we do long pieces of music and we're very involved with the technique of music as well as the excitement of it. Those kind of people tend to think that we're gonna be really sober you know, sort of puritans. And either of those are equally untrue. In fact we're very...well a good friend of ours once called us, in print, "controlled crazies." I mean we can be maniacal, we can be very foolish like everybody else, but, on the other hand when it comes to our work, we do take our work very seriously and we have a firm set of standards that apply to that. But when we're apart from work I think our day divides immediately after the show, from there our responsibilities end.
As I said earlier, Rush has never received critical acclaim, only the devotion of their fans. And I may add, with very little support from the music industry as a whole. Their first taste of success, before this latest record hit big, was the album 2112.
I know the first album of ours that became successful was 2112. And it was an album that contained a great amount of frustration and anger, because the industry had been, had 'shat' upon us really, with our third album. It had not been successful at all and we were very disillusioned with the whole state of things, because we'd kept our integrity and everything and it wasn't painting out for us and we'd been written off by the industry when it comes right down to it. So this album contained all of that rejection I guess and all of that determination too came back through the music. And I can listen to that album now and feel that electricity and I know that's what made people respond to that album, because it was so direct and so impassioned.
So how are you Neil?
I'm very well thank you.
Good. I want to start with "The Spirit of Radio" since we're discussing that here.
Good place to begin.
Yeah, what the hell. First off before we even ask that question, did you have any idea this album was gonna do this?
No, no, I must say that we did not at all. At the time we finish an album it's usually with mixed feelings now, having some experience. Whereas with our early albums we would finish it and of course be very proud of it and be very much in love with it and think, "everyone will love this album", you know, "this is going to be a big, huge hit, smash album, no-one can possibly resist it". And then of course people would resist by millions. And so, now when we finish an album it's with those same feelings of pride and those same feelings of love for the work. But at the same time you go, "well, people might not respond to that", you have to be prepared for that. We try to remember the reasons that we're here and hope that the rest of that will take care of itself.
The reasons that you are here, would it have anything to do with this word that you've used, at least twice on songs on this album, called integrity?
Yeah, I didn't know that I was harping on that so much, but a lot of people have pointed that out on this album, that it is something I say a lot. And I guess it is true, it is a pet bee in my bonnet I think, is integrity. Because to us the bottom line is that we are musicians, and everything else does have to stem from that, and if we are to attain our integrity as musicians, then every decision we make that has to be the foremost thing. And it's very easy to make a decision as a businessman or as a record company executive or as a song writer or all of these things, but, we've tried to base all those on the that pure and simple fact that we're musicians who love music.
Actually "The Spirit of Radio" could be called 'The Spirit of Music', because it has as much to say to musicians, or more, than it has to say to radio stations. That particular song was written about a radio station that is a paragon, it's called CFNY-FM and it's in Toronto. And they are still what FM radio was fifteen years ago. So I listen to it constantly when I'm home and it represents something, maybe the precious last stronghold of something. Their slogan is actually "The Spirit of Radio". So it was directly inspired by that station and in the first verse of the song it deals with personal experience with radio, when you wake up in the morning, you turn on the radio.
Well as I understand it, it was always seen that FM stations were generally a small bi-product of a big AM station that was making a whole lot of money. And, consequently they used FM stations just as a, pretty well as a tax write off, and let people do what they wanted to on them. So that's where totally open radio was happening, and not long ago, probably fifteen years ago. And then all of a sudden a few of them started to investigate their FM departments, and find out that they could format and charge and look for certain demographics and so on. And all of a sudden it became a huge business venture, and unfortunately some people involved in business are very narrow minded, and they look towards the short term and they look towards the quick acquisition of a little bit, and in the long term acquisition of a lot. So consequently it just became very coldly charted as I said in the song, where everything is just figured out by numbers. And radio or music don't work by numbers.
Personally I enjoy interpretation, I like to know what people say about things. So, consequently I think there is a lot of room for that in radio, and I think it can be done implicitly as well as explicitly.
[Begins talking about "Freewill"]
[Neil's phone rings, says 'Hello I'm in the middle of an interview right now, okay goodbye'.] Right, we were talking about, I know, okay, um, yes like a lot of mysticism, whether it's astrology or religion, that have you believe that men are evil and must be controlled. And that's the whole premise behind those things that there's something better than man, because man isn't so good and those things have to look after us because we can't look after ourselves. And I believe that might be a nice delusion to hide behind, but when it comes down to it, you make the choices, even if you avoid making the choices by choosing one of these screens to hide behind, you have still made a choice that affects the outcome of your life.
Let's say that next week you go to some kind of gathering, or you're at a friend's house, and for some reason you run into, let's say, Maharishi or someone. Sit down, have a conversation with the guy, you go, "God I've never heard it that way before, yeah, that's exactly the way I feel". Would this preclude you from becoming, let's say, a follower of that, of any particular path, or you just rule all that out?
I don't rule it out because I'm not a cynic, and I'm very interested in mystical non-real things. You know, like one of my favorite TV shows is 'The Twilight Zone', I love fantasy and science fiction books. Obviously I'm not an agnostic who only believes in things I can knock my head against, but by the same token, I feel that the amount of knowledge I have worked to achieve over the past few years would preclude me from . becoming a blind follower, because I have tried to learn what everyone had to say and what everyone thought, at least in a general sense. Not that I know the whole history of the world or anything, but I've tried to explore at least enough into, even into Eastern mysticism and so on. To at least find out what it is about that that attracts people and what it is it has to say that people find important. I believe that there are things we can't explain, but I don't believe in supreme beings and I don't believe that there's anyone running my life except me.
I would like to believe in a more higher evolved lifestyle or whatever, but, on this planet and given the parameters of reality that we have to deal with, I think there's no doubt that people are directing their own course, whether for good or evil.
I was considering the other day. I'm reading a book called 'The Invisible College', which is one man's interpretation of the UFO phenomenon and how people have seen religious visions in the past, and actually there were these phenomenon that repeat themselves and so on and so on. And he sees it as more of a natural thing than any kind of really even extra-terrestrial. But considering that if someone was evolved to, let's say, if someone would want to come back and eat McDonald's cheeseburgers?
Yeah. I know, like I said, I don't have trouble accepting it, but, I'd wanna see it. I do think there are certainly a lot of things that go on that are beyond our knowledge, but I think there might be other explanations as well. I have theories and beliefs, and the nature of time that allows for a lot of strange cross-flow and feedback and so on. That, I think might go a long way toward explaining the more real of those experiences, both with UFO's and with reincarnation and all those kind of mystical things.
I don't look for a religious source for those kind of things, I look for a physical reason, you know, and I think that has to be in the nature of time. If UFO's are visiting us, they're probably ourselves in the future, because I believe in the nature of time being a spiral, so by that nature, then there have to be points of cross reference between different arcs of the spiral.
Or Rod Serling's explanation.
Where is Rod when we need him?
He's on TV every day, twice. I get up early just to catch him.
As we continue our 'Innerview' of Rush, we're gonna begin this next segment with a phenomenon that I have had many bands, who have been before these microphones, tell me about. It's the fascinating occurrence that happens when a band, while recording a live album, comes off stage completely disillusioned with that evening's performance, totally convinced, that the show was a disaster from where they heard it. Only to discover a couple of weeks later, that when listening to the tapes of that very same performance, it was the best they'd done in recent memory.
We found that exact same thing, in the same experience when we were recording our last live album. We recorded three days, and on the third night I had a lot of equipment troubles and I was just burning with rage, because there's no time when you respond emotionally like you do on stage. Everything just, you respond spontaneously, and I never lose my temper except when I'm on stage, because things go wrong there, I'm wide open emotionally there because of what I'm involved, the level of concentration, I don't have time for a rational response, I just go, arrgh...!
And so consequently all this angst was coming out of me during the course of the night and I figured the album was ruined because of all this. And then we listened to those tapes back and those were the ones that had all the energy, and it's true that anger can sometimes bring out the passion in the music.
[Begins talking about "Jacob's Ladder"]
In my lyrics I've drawn a lot of references from The Bible, because it's a very colorful source of images. And I grew up, not religious, but in a religious background, going to Sunday school and taking religious education in school and so on. So, all these things do suggest themselves as metaphors and "Jacob's Ladder" is a lovely phrase, those two words itself. And that's in fact what we started with, we looked at the song as being a 'cinemative' kind of exercise and before any lyrics were written we talked about the image of "Jacob's Ladder", of a cloudy sky coming on and then all of a sudden these beams of light, which, everybody sees and I have always found very inspiring sort of thing. We had that experience in common. So we created the music just out of that vision and that image and wrote the whole song around that. And then in retrospect I went back and wrote a couple of verses of lyrics just to depict the image a little more acute and also to bring the vocals in as an instrumental sound.
Who did the synthesizers on this?
Oh that's Geddy. He doubles on bass and synthesizers.
Did a good job.
Yeah, it was a real challenge for him, it still is every night, because there's so many strange things going, he has to get from bass to foot pedals and synthesizers, and Alex and I are playing in a different time signature from keyboards, so, he has to divorce himself from us and just think of what he's doing. He has pretty complex things to pull together, both physically and musically.
And he can do this on stage?
Oh yeah. It's difficult for him, but yeah, he can do it. He plays synthesizers with his feet, because he has the interface between...he has a polyphonic synthesizer and he triggers it with, are you familiar with the Moog Taurus pedals?
No I'm not.
Oh, they're bass pedal synthesizers, just like an organ keyboard. And he has that interfaced into his multi-voiced synthesizer, so he can hit a note here and trigger eight voices. So he gets an eight note chord basically with his feet. So that's given us a lot more flexibility in instrumentals. So a good part of the synthesizer work is handled by him, and also Alex plays regular bass pedal synthesizers in harmony with his feet while he's playing guitar. And that, through the meat part of the song it's those two playing with their feet, and then once the rhythm stops and the ethereal section in the middle, that's synthesizers with his hands. But it's amazing the tricks we've evolved.
Would you pronounce the title of the next song for me?
Oh "Entre Nous" yeah. It's a French phrase, it means 'Between Us'. And it's meant to be somewhat of a letter really, a personal letter, it deals with personal relationships both with male-female and male-male relationships, and also on a larger scale I think social relationships to, between individuals and groups of people, and groups and groups and all the subdivisions that our society's made up of. And basically what it says is, let's stop fooling ourselves, we are different let's admit it. And I think a lot of today's neurosis and people's insecurities and so on, come from the fact that they have weirdnesses you know? And that's a thing I think you have to come to grips with and accept your faults and accept your strengths as well, which is equally important. A lot of people are as ashamed of their strengths as they are of their weaknesses. It's really sad, I like people just to look at each other and say they're very different, it's almost impossible for us to understand each other I think, no matter how long you've known a person you can still be surprised by them, and there's still times when you look at them and say "I don't know what you're thinking." You can't get inside another person, that's absolutely impossible, so, that's another important part of the sang to, it's how far apart we really are.
You were mentioning just a while ago, that the industry ripped you off at one point. Obviously, I'm sure, they're all calling now going, hey, I was backing you then and I always knew you'd make it.
And we took notes.
Yeah, you got notes. How do you handle that if someone comes up and does that?
Um, it's sort of with a, a skeptical smile I'd guess you'd say. You know, because we're not doing it because we have what we want, so we can afford to be generous I guess you'd say, and we can look at these people with, a smile, but never with respect. You know how can you ever respect a person like that? But very many musicians' hands are dirty as a businessman's, and I think you can put the blame on businessmen, it's pretty easy but I think you have to look at a lot of musicians who' sold themselves before you look at the guys who bought them.
I think the most important thing for any musician to learn is how to say no. No I won't do that, that's not what I wanted to do, that's not why I'm here, that's not why I spent six years learning how to play my instrument. You have to keep those values paramount all the time, to me those are the important things. The fact that I'm here as a musician and I know what I dreamed of when I was a kid and I know that I'm going to achieve that on those terms or not. You know I don't see the glory in being a full time musician if you're not playing the music that you love to play.
You see a lot of musicians who make the choice, well, the music I like to play is not getting anywhere, I'll go join a band playing; some garbage and make a nice salary and forget about it. Whereas for me it shows a lot more integrity if you give up music altogether as a profession and go and get a regular day job and play the music you love at night, or, all the rest of the hours of your day that you have, you know whatever it takes. But to me I think it has to be inviolate. It doesn't matter what you do for a living, but, you have to remain with your heart set in the right place.
Well said Neil, well said. Let's go onto "Natural Science".
Oh yeah. Could spend days on that one.
Yeah, really...?...Really could...?...You think we'll ever get the, the big picture of how to learn to live within...?...[unclear statements] Because you use it in here about conquering science, or conquering nature.
The statement just means that a lot of people think that in order to tame a thing you have to conquer it. And I don't think that's true. I don't think...it doesn't belong to a science like nature, it must also be tamed. But with a view towards its preservation. In other words, you don't have to wipe it out to save it.
You know the thing we're finally coming around to that, especially 'whitey' is coming around to, you know white guys. White man has always been very, you know, we gotta dominate it, we got to clear it out, and put it in some kind of plastic bag.
I think it's hard to be very simple about that though, because it is the negative side of a positive thing, in one sense. I think that drive and ambition that's caused that on the negative side, has also add to some wonderful positive things, obviously in terms of making people's lives happier, longer. I think there are a lot of great strides being taken by man and it's also true of art. For all the corruption I bet that goes on, there's a lot of really worthwhile things going on to. I mean you can look at the cinema you can look at books being written, you can look at newspapers, you can look at any manifestation of our existence here, and you see a positive side and a negative side to it. And I think that the scientific and mechanical world getting out of hand is a symptom, but it's also a symptom of that positive quest to know, that I think is one of the most precious things that we have. If it's contained within a reasonable focus, a lot of people don't have enough reason to handle it.
Obviously the original relationship between men and nature was, you had to tame it to survive. And then that became more and more sophisticated and more and more out of hand and finally it became just destruction, you know just for the sake of, of I guess out of fear or something. And now it's become the same thing with science, where people don't understand it and they're afraid of it, and they thing you need to eradicate it in order to control it. I think it needs a lot more of awareness in people's minds about what science is and what it's doing and why. And the fact that science isn't some impersonal thing that's trying to destroy us, it's not an enemy it's something we ourselves created and if it gets out of hand it's our fault for letting it get out of hand. So, what it boils down to really is, we've just gotta take ourselves in hand really more than anything it's we who need the taming.
I think people do understand what we say, and we're not over estimating their intelligence at all. We have been accused of that. And saying that you have to talk down to people" and I don't think that's the case. I think we're not geniuses, we're only regular guys who are interested in things. So the fact that we can understand something and then it captures our imaginations, I think is something in common you know?
Very good. Thank you Neil.
Thank you. Pleasure. That was really a good one. I like it when you get in and get into each thing.
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